Monday, November 20


Celebrating Advent with Variety

It's been much remarked upon the last few years that Advent is the most neglected of liturgical seasons. In our secularized version of Christmas, the countdown of consumerism begins sometime in mid-October, reaches its insane peak the day after Thanksgiving (the new phenomenon of stores opening after midnight is the latest example of this), and spends the actual time leading up to Christmas doing things like singing Christmas songs. Even in the Church, Advent can be a very much one-dimensional seasons liturgically, especially in terms of music. "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," which is certainly a very beautiful hymn, gets beaten into our brains through the fact that it is basically the only Advent song many people know. Even Mass settings such as Richard Proulx's Missa Emmanuel (one of the weaker moments of one of my favorite liturgical composers) serve to inculcate this unfortunate trend. How, then, to reclaim the season of Advent?

1. Learn some more hymns. There are many and beautiful Advent hymns besides "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and "On Jordan's Bank." Let's flip through our hymnal and take a look:
"When the King Shall Come Again" (Gaudeamus Pariter) is one of my favorite Advent hymns, a great text that bespeaks the hope of Advent, set to a great tune that also accompanies the Easter hymn, "Come Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain."
"O Come Divine Messiah" is a beautiful, easy-to-learn hymn from the French tradition.
"Creator of the Stars of Night" and its Latin original Creator Alme Siderum - a great Advent hymn from the Church's tradition of chant. "Rorate Caeli" and "Veni Redemptor Gentium" are also very good, easily learnable chant hymns.
"Wake, O Wake And Sleep No Longer" and other translations of Bach's Wachet Auf help engage people with some of the greatest music ever written.
"Savior of the Nations, Come" (Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland) is another great German tune that a good parish organist can also expand on in an improvisation or one of many wonderful settings from Buxtehude to Distler.
"Comfort, Comfort, O My People" is an unconventional, highly chromatic hymn tune, but quite effective.
"Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending" (Helmsley) is one of the most majestic combinations of hymn and tune ever composed, and is highly recommended to any parish, especially with a good organ. The setting of this to "Saint Thomas" in the Adoremus Hymnal, incidentally, is highly unfortunate. This hymn demands the tune Helmsley, and any other setting is completely inadequate to the majesty of this text

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign.

Every eye shall now behold Him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.

Those dear tokens of His passion
Still His dazzling body bears;
Cause of endless exultation
To His ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

Yea, Amen! let all adore Thee,
High on Thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for Thine own;
O come quickly! O come quickly! O come quickly!
Alleluia, Come, Lord, Come!

2. Have Lessons and Carols
Christmas concerts are great, but Advent Lessons and Carols ought to take place before and with at least as much emphasis as any concert. These enable a parish both to learn some of the new hymns mentioned above and also to think more deeply about the Advent season and its meaning amidst the secular Christmas rush. They could also be a great way to help introduce the parish to some new music one is not yet ready to use at Mass, or to help recruit for a parish choir.

3. Learn a choral "Kyrie"
With no Gloria, maybe it's time for your parish to experiment with the idea of a choral "Kyrie" that can help bring some great music from the tradition into the experience of Mass. Since proposing to sing all or many of the Mass propers chorally can bring about resistance from those not ready for the idea, get them used to it by starting with the Kyrie and demonstrating both that it can be done well and is not disruptive to the flow of the Mass. This might also be a good time to take up a Latin chant Ordinary, both as a way of simplifying, and as a way of introducing something new to people for the new liturgical year.

All of these can, I think, help a parish to give Advent a better sense of identity as not simply a prelude to Christmas, which it certainly is, but also as a season with its own identity and themes that ought to be appreciated in their full richness.

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